Women's hockey grows with WHAM
Tuesday, 09.29.2009 / 1:50 PM CT / Minnesota Wild | Features
About the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota
Who Can Play?
The Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota (WHAM) encourages girls and women of all age groups and skill levels to compete. Teams are classified according to their overall skill level, into one of seven different leagues, which range from Division 1 college-skilled players (A1) to truly beginning skaters (C3).
How are skill levels determined?
Players new to WHAM may need to attend a skills assessment to determine their appropriate skill level. Details about skills assessments are available on the WHAM Web site: www.whamhockey.org.
Where is WHAM Hockey Played?
Teams are located throughout the state of Minnesota. The majority of teams are based in the Twin Cities Metro area, but others come from as far away as Duluth.
When is WHAM hockey played?
Teams play a home and away schedule beginning in late October and continuing through mid-March.
For more information
Visit www.whamhockey.org for more information, including contacts for questions.
“When we turned in our roster, we used only our first initials and last names,” said Ligman, 53, who now lives in Roseville. “And we called our team ‘die Mädchen,’ which is the German word for ‘the girls.’”
The subterfuge was effective.
“We’d show up and start putting our gear on and invariably a guy from the other team would come up to us and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’”
While Ligman said the opposing men’s teams were good natured about their unexpected foes “once they got over the initial surprise,” her story is indicative of how far women’s hockey has come in 30 years.
Dramatic increase in registered players
Today a group of women dressed in hockey gear is no longer cause for quizzical looks.
In 1990, when the first IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship was held, there were about 6,000 women registered as playing hockey in the United States. Last year, that number reached almost 60,000 — a number that doesn’t include girls and women playing for high school and college teams, who are not required to register with USA Hockey.
In Minnesota alone, the 200 high schools and 23 colleges that play girls’ and women’s hockey would add another 5,000 players to that total.
The Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota (WHAM), the largest women’s-only adult hockey league association in the United States, has seen its membership double in the last five years. It now boasts more than 1,300 players who play in seven divisions.
The University of Minnesota, which plays in Ridder Arena, the only facility built specifically for a women’s collegiate hockey program, is one of five Division I women’s hockey teams in the state. And the Minnesota Whitecaps, a professional team in the Western Women’s Hockey League, plays in arenas around the state from September to March.
“With the growth of girls’ hockey and the college game, women have more opportunities to be exposed to hockey,” said Susan Welles, Women’s Hockey Director for Minnesota Hockey and a former president of WHAM. “Many women see it as another avenue to get their athletic kick. It’s especially attractive given the fact that there aren’t many other winter activities for women.”
“An awesome outlet”
Theresa Lauber of St. Paul is one of those women. The mother of five originally saw hockey as an opportunity to exercise, but it became much more.
“When my youngest child was almost 3, I realized that I hadn’t done anything physical since before he was born. But the thought of going to a gym wasn’t appealing. It struck me as boring,” said Lauber, 41.
Seeing her children and husband, an Ohio native, learning to play and love the game, she decided to take an adult hockey class. Not long after, Lauber was subbing for a WHAM-affiliated team and now plays at least two nights a week.
“I love it. It’s an awesome outlet, both physically and mentally,” she said. “I take care of people all day, driving the kids to their practices and other events. But this is something that’s just for me. I think I’m a better mom after I get a chance to play hockey.”
Husker embraces Minnesota hockey
Catherine Conlan, 38, originally bought hockey skates and a stick so she could skate with her two children in the back yard of her Two Harbors home. The Omaha native had grown to appreciate hockey after attending college in Minnesota and working in Russia after graduation.
But playing hockey?
“No way,” Conlan laughed. “It was something I never could’ve envisioned doing."
But two years ago, a sign in the local arena caught her eye. A group of women were looking to put a recreational team together. She joined and hasn’t looked back.
“It’s fun on so many levels. It’s a good workout. It’s exciting. And it’s great to be part of something that’s such a big part of this area and the state,” said Conlan, who now discusses hockey topics with a level of enthusiasm previously reserved only for her beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.
All ages and skill levels
Lauber and Conlan are indicative of the increasing number of mothers who are joining the ranks of Minnesota’s hockey players. But the growth in Minnesota’s women hockey is coming from virtually every conceivable demographic.
Single women. Virtually every occupation. Those with little or no athletic experience. Recent high school graduates and grandmothers.
“The sheer numbers and diversity of women coming to the game is amazing,” Welles said, noting the league attracts women from age 18 to well into their 60s.
“The women I play with come from all walks of life,” Lauber said. “And that makes it even more fun. I’m meeting people who I might not otherwise meet. It’s a great atmosphere — we all get along so well.”
With its seven divisions, WHAM makes it easy for women of many experience and skill levels to find a league and level of competition that is comfortable. The association’s biggest growth is coming from its entry-level recreational divisions. But it also offers the high-level competition that the growing number of advanced women hockey players seek.
“With the growth of women’s college hockey, we’re seeing a lot of Division 1 players joining our advanced leagues,” said Ligman, who has been associated with WHAM almost since its inception in the early 1970s, including two stints as the association’s president. “We’ve even had Olympians — Jenny Potter for one — who have played in our leagues. So we have something that fits every possible skill level.”
Ice time presents biggest challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge that comes with the growth of women’s hockey is the finite amount of ice time that’s available to male and female adult hockey players, youth teams, figure skating clubs and broomball leagues.
Kris Kraft, system manager of athletic facilities at Augsburg College, said the demand for ice time at Augsburg’s two rinks from women’s teams has steadily increased since she began working at the school in 1994. “But in the last three years, it has just exploded,” she said.
Kraft, who said about 25 percent of Augsburg’s ice is rented to adult women’s teams — mostly from WHAM — said players come from as far away as Glencoe to get the ice time they seek.
“Augsburg has a history of supporting women’s hockey. The school, in fact, had the first collegiate varsity women’s team in the state — even before the University of Minnesota,” Kraft said. “It’s been fun to see the level of competition and skill increase dramatically, just in the time that I’ve been here.”
High retention level
Perhaps the biggest indicator that women’s hockey will continue its rapid growth is its addictive hold on the women who give it a try.
“The retention level of women who try hockey is incredible,” said Welles, a Wisconsin native who picked up the game eight years ago. “Even those who have feared contact sports discover they can fall down and even get hit and get right back up. There’s something about hockey that that’s unlike other sports — it’s hard to describe.”
“There’s just something exciting about learning something new,” said Conlan, who admits she “would pay good money to just wake up one day and be able to crossover while skating backwards.”
Despite her struggles with some skating skills, Conlan has learned to love the elements of the game a hockey player of any skill level can truly appreciate.
“I’ve learned what fun it is to go down on one knee and pump your fist after a goal,” Conlan said.
So, in the unlikely event that Ligman, or any other Minnesota women’s hockey player is ever again asked “What are you doing here?” the answer could very well be, “Havin’ fun.”
By Dan Deuel
Let's Play Hockey!